Senior bullying: How to recognize it, how to handle it

Here’s my latest article on McKnight’s Long-Term Care News:


 Senior bullying: How to recognize it, how to handle it

Things were different when I was a kid. People regularly drove while intoxicated. The high school archery team practiced on the football field while the track team ran around the periphery. Children bullied their peers without anyone giving it much notice.

These days, drunk driving prohibitions abound, schools are no longer casual about teens with potential weapons, and children start learning about bullies in kindergarten.

When it comes to bullying in senior communities, though, we’re still behind the times.

What is senior bullying?

According to the American Psychological Association, “Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.

The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to ‘cause’ the bullying.” Bullying that does not involve physical contact is sometimes referred to as “relational aggression.”

According to senior bullying expert Dr. Robin Bonifas at Arizona State University, 10% to 20% of elders in senior communities experience bullying.

Dr. Margaret Wylde of the ProMatura Group reports that senior bullying occurs in every independent living community studied in her 2014 report, “Make Them Feel at Home,” sponsored by the American Seniors Housing Association.

In that study, bullying fell into the category with the largest relationship to whether or not the community feels homelike. Study participants described problems such as “difficulties making friends, being lonely, not fitting in, not having common interests, bullying by cliques, and missing their friends.”

Wylde notes that increasing residents’ sense of being at home results in fewer departures from the independent living community and reduced staff turnover, leading to an estimated $52,242 in savings over the course of a year. (Far more than enough to fund a bullying prevention program!)

Increased media focus

Senior bullying is receiving increased attention in the mainstream media, with articles such as Paula Span’s New Old Age column, Mean Girls in Assisted Living and Jennifer Wiener’s Mean Girls in the Retirement Home. (“Mean girls” tend to engage in gossip, excluding others and establishing cliques, while male bullies are more likely to yell and threaten.)

Heightened media exposure for the issue increases the likelihood that potential residents and their adult children will be asking about bullying prevention when they’re searching for a senior living community.

Steps to reduce bullying

In order to address bullying in long-term care, several steps should be taken:

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Senior bullying: How to recognize it, how to handle it


6 thoughts on “Senior bullying: How to recognize it, how to handle it”

  1. My mother lives in senior housing in North Attleboro, MA, and there is an elderly man in her building who is a bully. Over the past few months I’ve seen him shouting in a menacing manner at an elderly woman, while I waited at the elevator. Picking on and belittling others. I’ve seen him sitting in the dark in the waiting room off the entry way, talking loudly to him self. Last November I brought this to the attention of the office staff, but they brushed my concerns aside, claiming most of the residents find it helpful to keep to themselves. Any advice?

    • Hi Ed, There are a few different options I can suggest in this situation. Perhaps the office staff might be more responsive to concerns about the man’s mental health, since he’s talking to himself in the dark. The staff might not have training or a means to address bullying but may have a mental health counselor available for the residents. You could also get in touch with the office of long-term care services in your area and ask for their recommendations. Perhaps they have some training programs for senior care staff. It’s also wise to document any behavior you feel threatens your mother. Another option might be to get in touch with the activities director, if there is one, to see if he or she would be open to running a program on how to live peaceably together or some other anti-bullying program.

  2. I am interested in training for staff at our assisted living facilities. Do you have any short videos on how to recognize and intervene?


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